The Eisenhower Commemoration, Portora School, 16th May 2009

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By Michael Gilmore WLHA Public Relations Officer 

There are times when it is a real privilege to call yourself a re-enacter. Those are the times when in the eyes of the public, veterans or VIPs that you recreate an actual occasion that some remember or , by its very nature, stands out by it's local significance or poignancy. Those are the times when the members of the WLHA move far and beyond any label of just "guys in costume".

There is a field just outside Enniskillen which belongs to Portora School and looks much the same as any other playing field in the country. You can imagine that for many a youngster that field is a field of dreams where visions of playing rugby in the future for school, Ulster, Ireland, the Lions or whoever are nurtured. But that field has a proud history which until fairly recently, was a hidden history.

On Saturday the 16th of May, 2009, the WLHA was entrusted with the honour of transforming that field of dreams into a field of memories for local dignitaries, VIPs and the guest of honour, Susan Elliott, the US Consulate in Northern Ireland. The occasion the WLHA had to re-enact was an inspection conducted by Eisenhower on that very field of American troops shortly before they started on their dangerous mission to Normandy and beyond.

Information about the occasion itself in 1944 is sparse. The closeness of the Normandy landings and Eisenhower's vital role of managing that great crusade meant security was watertight and that part of Enniskillen was sealed off. However, one picture survives of the parade and inspection which took place and the WLHA were going to capture that photo's very essence - with somewhat less resources than the hundreds of troops who were there on the day. 

The Friday before the re-enactment the WLHA had erected it's camp for the two day WW2 display it was undertaking at Castle Archdale, the former WW2 seaplane base just outside Enniskillen. After the evening meal, thoughts turned to how the next day was going to unfold. Logistically and technically it would be challenging for the WLHA as personnel, vehicles and equipment had to visit several locations in a limited period of time. The next task was to put the finishing touches to the parade and colour party routine for the re-enactment.

It was an impressive sight to see the members of the club parading backwards and forwards around the cobbled square in Castle Archdale. Again and again they went through the routine and timings until everything was as it should be and everybody knew their place. When it became too dark to march any more and the midges had had their fill, the WLHA retired to the dorm and broke out the brushes and boot polish. To the sweet sounds of Glenn Miller and the pungent aroma of polish, jump boots were prepared and kit was laid out and checked and re-checked for the next day.

I was first up on the 16th, not long after 6am, for the Your Place and Mine radio interview which was pencilled in for 8am. I was picked up by local historian and project manager, Selwyn Johnston, who was also being interviewed about the occasion. As I was leaving, the rest of the guys were starting to surface and get ready for morning rehearsals. When the interview was done Selwyn and I headed to Castlecoole to meet up with the WLHA, Jeeps and other personnel involved in the Eisenhower commemoration. A few anxious minutes passed but everybody showed up for the prearranged photo shoot. Then to town and our rendezvous with history.

We pulled up in our convoy and parked at the side of the playing field. The dignitaries and Consulate were already there waiting expectantly. I think they were all pretty astounded at the sight of World War 2 soldiers de-bussing before their eyes and taking their positions on the historic playing field. After some final preparations the parade got underway, the American flag was presented to the American consul and a troop inspection took place. This was real history we were involved in- not only for Enniskillen and Portora, but for our club. This event ranks amongst the most prestigious and poignant that the WLHA has attended in it's history. To be on that field, at that time, on that day to commemorate and honour the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and his men is something that will stick with all of us forever. 

When the ceremonials, photo shoots and presentations were done I took some time to chat to Susan Elliot about the WLHA and what we had hoped to achieve. Susan was deeply impressed by the WLHA and what it had done for her nation and its heritage. She knew exactly what we were about and was touched that we cared enough to keep the memory of the GIs alive. In a break with protocol, Susan Elliott honoured the WLHA by taking a place with the guys in our jeep convoy on the next leg of the day to Enniskillen Castle for her next engagement. Once at the Castle, Susan dismounted her jeep and thanked the WLHA and event organiser, Selwyn Johnston, for their hard work and making the commemoration possible. The WLHA then headed off back to Castle Archdale to prepare for the two day display with large camps and pyrotechnic displays created by the clubs British, German, Russian and American units.

Looking back on the weekend I can't help feeling deep pride in what a group of ordinary people achieved with their extraordinary enthusiasm for their hobby and their heritage. The teamwork, care and focus displayed by every member of the club whether it was rehearsing, parading, presenting colours, providing the meals, constructing the pyros, building and taking down the camp was truly heartening and was clear evidence to me that as the WLHA approaches it's 5th birthday, we have a club that has matured and has a role to play in society we can be proud of.

The WLHA extends it's sincerest thanks to Mr. Selwyn Johnston, Ms. Susan Elliott, Fermanagh District Council, Portora and the NIEA staff at Castle Archdale for an unforgettable weekend.      

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